I have practised yoga nidra since 1985, and have been teaching it almost as long. In 1993, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, yoga nidra became a central, indispensable part of my yoga practice, which as a whole was the key factor in my recovery, and in the longer term, my healing. This experience left me with a deeper trust in yoga and a stronger commitment to teaching it. Since then, the focus of my teaching has increasingly been on the healing power of yoga, and the ways in which the yoga practices can support the healing process.
The benefits of yoga nidra to general health and well-being, and its deeper spiritual effects, are known to everyone who practises it, and are doubly applicable to anyone confronting and living with a life-changing illness. In this article I offer my thoughts on the importance of yoga nidra for people who are living with cancer (or indeed any life-changing illness) and on the specific relevance for them of the individual components of the practice.
I believe that the need for healing, for wholeness, harmony and balance is common to all beings; and that yoga and healing are fundamentally the same. These two beliefs are the foundation on which I base my teaching. The word yoga means union: yoking, uniting, bringing together. The Oxford Dictionary defines the word heal as: To make whole, or sound; to unite, after being cut or broken. So yoga and healing share both meaning and goal: integration, harmony, and balance on all levels of our being; and at the deepest level, the uniting of the self with the Self. Yoga is holistic: it heals by making us whole.
We all need, and seek, healing. When a person faces a diagnosis of cancer, this need becomes urgent. Cancer pulls one into the present; it turns ones life inside out, demanding that every aspect of it be urgently examined and reassessed. The diagnosis can leave one feeling fragmented: people say I felt as though I was in pieces, I felt as though I had lost myself. This is an extremely intense experience, and it draws many who are searching for healing and the restoration of their wholeness to yoga.
Every aspect of yoga has a role to play in the healing process. Nurturing body movement, breathing exercises, meditation, relaxation, yoga nidra all encourage the conditions in which physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health can flourish. Our efforts to observe yama and niyama give us the inner strength, conviction, and faith to meet the challenges we face and to learn the lessons they hold for us. The sacred texts the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, Patanjalis Yoga Sutras guide and support our quest for knowledge and help us prepare for death. Perhaps most importantly, they show us that we can heal into death.
Relaxation is fundamental to healing. Bringing body and mind to rest encourages our inner healing forces to work for us, and any deep relaxation technique will have positive effects on health and well-being. When regularly practised, relaxation calms the sympathetic nervous system (which initiates the fight or flight response) and activates the parasympathetic nervous system (which gives the message to body and mind that all is well). Deep relaxation slows and regulates breathing, lowers heart rate and blood pressure, releases muscular, mental and emotional tension. It improves ones quality of sleep and powers of concentration. It alleviates the anxiety and stress that depress immune function, and creates the conditions that enhance it. Since cancer, broadly speaking, is a complex of conditions in which a compromised immune system is failing to cope with the proliferation of damaged cells, a practice that stimulates the immune response is likely to be helpful.
Yoga nidra is a transformative practice that can bring about change on a profound level. Swami Satyananda Saraswati says: The profound experience of muscular, mental and emotional relaxation attainable in yoga nidra enables a balance of psychic and vital energies within the psychic channels (nadis) of the energy framework underlying the physical body. Free flow of these energies forms the basis of optimal physical and mental health.*1
To the general benefits of relaxation, yoga nidra adds special attributes of its own. It helps us to overcome fears, anxieties and insecurities. It creates an inner environment conducive to the transformation of attitudes. It teaches us to let go. It develops detachment (vairagya). It releases our samskaras. It awakens sakshi, the witnessing consciousness.
These will be the effects of yoga nidra for those who regularly practise it. For anyone dealing with a life-changing disease and here we are not concerned solely with physical recovery, but with full emotional and spiritual healing all these attributes become even more important and more necessary.
Every part of the practice of yoga nidra works to free blocked energy. Most significantly, practising yoga nidra can help us to acknowledge and accept the reality of our situation, however unwelcome, difficult, or scary it is; and can help us to acknowledge, accept, and release the powerful emotions it brings up. These emotions are understandably often bottled up and repressed, but once they have been brought into consciousness the energy that has been trapped in repressing them is freed, for more useful, more creative purposes.
Acknowledging and accepting reality means seeing the thing as it is. The fundamental truth for the person with cancer is that his/her reality has suddenly undergone a profound change. This is the case whatever the type of cancer that has been diagnosed, whether it is one of those with a favourable outlook or not, whether it has been discovered at an early stage and is treatable and manageable, or is advanced and likely to be terminal. Whether one is going to die in a month or in a year, or in 40 years, of cancer or of something else, the reality one is facing as a consequence of the diagnosis is the reality of mortality, of death.
This is a huge thing to deal with. It brings with it an onslaught of emotions that for most people are overwhelming: anxiety, terror, anger, grief, despair, fears for ones future and for ones loved ones. These emotions tend to hit all at once, creating an inner upheaval and a commotion within ones heart and head that make it very difficult to think clearly or constructively, or at all.
Yoga nidra practice will quiet this commotion down, giving us periods of relative peace that enable us to resume life with our equanimity restored: then we can reflect more calmly on our situation. With regular practice, the effects are cumulative and lasting: our habitual reactions and responses to the situations we face, our ways of being in the world, change. Each time we practise, we learn something about letting go, and this learning stays with us Practising yoga nidra creates an inner environment conducive to the transformation of attitudes: in the case of a person confronting a grave illness, the attitude toward the disease and its meaning for his or her life. A cancer diagnosis is not necessarily a catastrophe. It seems so to almost everyone at first, but many people come to look at it differently: as an opportunity to examine ones life and to change whatever appears to need changing; and as an invitation to heal on a deep level.
The illness thus becomes a catalyst for healing, spiritual growth and transformation. If this happens, the entire experience of dealing with the disease and with the treatment, and above all living with the implications of cancer for ones future, becomes a transformative healing process. What at first appeared to be a disaster has become a challenge, even a blessing, and a spur for making constructive changes. The illness comes to be understood, and used, as a stepping-stone to healing and as a path to a richer, more rewarding life. This may lead to the healthy reassessment of priorities on the practical level, such as making significant changes in nutrition, lifestyle, relationships, home life and working life. On a deeper level a profound shift of consciousness may occur, a shift that drives the individuals spiritual journey from that point onwards.
For those who seek its help, yoga will play a significant role in this process. Amongst the many wonderful tools in the yoga bag of tools, yoga nidra stands out as a practice of prime importance for anyone going through it.
Now we can look at the four central elements of yoga nidra: sankalpa, the rotation of awareness, the pairs of opposites, and visualization, and at their specific relevance to a person living with cancer, throughout the journey from diagnosis onwards.
The sankalpa is a resolve, a statement of positive intent. It works, because it is like a seed planted deep in the rich earth of the subconscious when the mind is quiet and relaxed and ready to absorb it. This seed will germinate, take root, and grow into a healthy plant that will flower and bear fruit, helping us to make the changes we want to make in our life, and to become all that we are capable of being.
Sankalpa directs energy towards healing and spiritual fulfilment: it inspires, supports and sustains the impulse to heal, an impulse not limited to the conscious level. My students with cancer, particularly those who have been practising yoga and yoga nidra for a few years or longer, have experienced and testified to its power; and I, observing this in them and in myself, have come to feel that sankalpa is the heart of yoga nidra.
When we make our sankalpa, we are making a promise to ourselves. We are committing ourselves to both the present and the future: to our task now, and to what we want to do, and be, in the future. Above all, we are asserting our trust that there is a future. People in full health may take the future for granted, but for the newly diagnosed cancer patient who is sure as so many newly diagnosed people are that she/he is going to die, the choosing and using of a sankalpa is an affirmative act that opposes this counter-productive, if understandable, fatalism. It is an act of profound significance for healing.
Here is what Swami Satyananda says in Yoga Nidra about the role of sankalpa in cancer: In healing cancer, enormous, sustained endurance and willpower are necessary. In order to attain this, the sankalpa is practised during yoga nidra. The sankalpa is a personal resolution which is released like a seed into the subconscious mind, when the experience of relaxation is deep and the subconscious mind is laid bare and accessible. When this force rises into the sphere of conscious awareness, it can bring about even the impossible in life. Yoga nidra, by maximizing the patients own conscious efforts to become healthy and whole, is an effective form of cancer therapy. 1
In Freedom from the Bondage of Karma, Swami Rama explains the three kinds of karma: past (the effects of our actions in the past whose consequences we have already experienced); present (the effects of past actions whose consequences we are experiencing in the present); and future, which we are creating by our conscious actions and thoughts in the present. Over the first two kinds of karma we have no control. The actions are done, and we have already experienced their effects, or are now experiencing them now, or will experience them in the future. But we can influence the third kind of karma. Swami Rama says, The arrow which is just now being loaded in our bow is the one which we can control.*2
So we can think of sankalpa: as the arrow we are just now loading in our bow, a tool with which we can envision and shape the future we want for ourselves, and aim at it. Then our thoughts and actions, directed by sankalpa, can follow the path our arrow cuts for us through the jungle of our fears, insecurities and illusions.
Sankalpa cannot determine the outcome of the healing process, but its contribution to it should not be underestimated. It remains affirmative and significant throughout the journey, even if the cancer becomes terminal. In that final stage, the present becomes infinitely precious, and the future must be differently conceived (but there is still a future).
In the rotation of awareness the body and the mind are brought to a deeply relaxed state. While the focused mind follows the guiding voice around the body, the clamour of painful emotions is calmed, the burden of fear and worry lifted for a time. The act of lightly touching each part of the body with the awareness brings prana, energy, to each part (the awareness is the prana). At the end of the rotation, the awareness is expanded into the whole body, which may then be experienced as filled with energy.
The rotation teaches us to let go. As our attention moves quickly and lightly from each part of the body to the next, not lingering or concentrating, we are being taught in the simplest, clearest way not to hang on. The letting go lesson learned during the rotation applies to everything in life: emotions, sensations, experiences, achievements, possessions, disappointments, people. Ultimately, it applies to life itself. Letting go is a lesson for us all to learn. It may be the single most important lesson of yoga nidra, as it arguably is of life.
A person with cancer has a great deal to let go of. All of it is challenging. Much of it has to do with our illusions. We all have illusions, and if we have always been healthy, we probably harbour a couple of particularly tenacious ones.
The illusion of our immortality. We live under this one until we face a life-changing illness. Until then, we probably thought of our time as unlimited. It doesnt seem to matter how old we are when the rude awakening comes, for most, the shattering of the illusion is a shock. But it can be a blessing. For me, acknowledging my mortality at age 58 was liberating. It forced me into the present. It made me acutely conscious of the fact that my time is finite, and I resolved to use the time as well as I could, however long or short it turned out to be. The emotional intensity of that period began to subside during the following year and has long since gone, but the commitment remains, as does the consciousness of finite time.
The illusion that our body is exempt from the ills that visit the bodies of others. In a sense this is part of the mortality illusion, but it has its own special sting, particularly for those who practise and/or teach yoga. We may think: How could this happen to me? Ive practised yoga for years, so how could my body let me down so dramatically? Others ask us the same question, and their astonishment feeds into our tendency to doubt and blame ourselves. We may scold ourselves, feel guilty, lose trust in our bodies, in ourselves.
But the reality is that all bodies, even the bodies of yogis and yoga teachers wear out and break down. The great spiritual masters have not been exempt: Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharishi died of cancer, so did Sri Ramakrishna, among others. Ultimately, the reality is that we are all going to have to let go of life itself, and realizing it now helps prepare for the eventuality. The rotation of awareness in yoga nidra gives us practice in letting go, gently prying us loose from our illusions, and possibly easing our journey towards death.
The rotation of awareness, and yoga nidra as a whole, may also help to renew the persons broken connection with his or her body. A woman who has lost a breast, for example, may feel mutilated, disfigured. She may feel her body has betrayed her by developing cancer, or that it is being irreversibly damaged by chemotherapy or radiotherapy. The re-connection with the body experienced through yoga nidra is nurturing, uplifting and liberating. It opens the way to acceptance, to healing and the return of wholeness.
In the pairs of opposites, as in the rotation of awareness, we move quickly, not lingering, not holding on to comfortable or uncomfortable sensations, or to painful or pleasant emotions, but letting go of each sensation or emotion before proceeding to the next. This part of the practice consolidates the letting go lesson. It teaches us not to get caught up in liking or disliking things. In working with the pairs of opposites we learn that yes, we can let go.
Working with the pairs of opposites sparks our creativity. It teaches us to create, develop, and experience sensations and emotions, and to let go of them. The opposites teach us that sensations and emotions are ephemeral: they come and go, and do not last. Thus this part of the practice helps to release our samskaras, impressions from past experiences.
The opposites teach us detachment, vairagya, the quality that empowers us to stand back a little, not to hold onto sensations and emotions, not to get entangled in them, but to let them come and let them go. We learn to look at what is going on inside us without being afraid of it. We learn that warmth and cold are just warmth and cold, not good and bad. They are just what they are. Pain and pleasure are simply pain and pleasure: we learn to experience them without judging them, without flinching from pain or clinging to pleasure. In creating, developing, feeling, and letting go of sensations and emotions, we learn that sensations and emotions are transitory: they come and they go, and do not last. We learn that the thing is as it is.
For people dealing with a grave illness, and with invasive treatments that generally make them feel worse than the illness itself, this is an exceptionally useful learning. As we work with the opposites, we come to realize that however intense the terror around the diagnosis, however deep the anxiety about the future, however distressing the illness, and however unpleasant or painful the treatment, these sensations and emotions will not last forever. They will end.
The different types of visualizations in yoga nidra rapid images, story lines, the chakras, healing allow fears and insecurities to surface so that they can be acknowledged, accepted and released. They connect us to our creativity, using our imagination to create and develop images and stories. Working with visualization in yoga nidra, when we are open and sensitive and our imagination can roam freely, helps us to remember and let go of painful stuff from the past. It accesses and releases our samskaras, the impressions grooved into our consciousness by our past experiences. This brings a release from some of the psychological, emotional, and karmic causes of illness and opens us to new experiences.
It is not unusual for people who develop cancer to probe and delve into what they may have done to cause their cancer, or failed to do to avoid it. If they have heard of the concept of karma but lack any real understanding of it, they may conclude, Its my karma, and wonder what theyve done to deserve such bad karma. They may be encouraged in this pointless activity by well-meaning friends with a smattering of simplistic New Age knowledge, by the complementary therapists they approach for help, and by misguided fellow yogis. All this is likely to have an entirely negative impact on the healing process.
Karma is surely a factor in the development of a cancer, but there is little to be gained by obsessing over our past sins, whether of commission or omission, since there is nothing we can do on the conscious level to alter our past and unfolding karma. But the release of samskaras in yoga nidra does not always happen on the conscious level. It creates no additional problems and gives us no hang-ups. It just releases the samskaras and the energy held in them. Unlike the guilt-producing, self-scolding and soul-searching, which dissipate energy and block the healing process, it liberates energy and supports the healing process.
Yoga nidra awakens sakshi, the witnessing consciousness. Sakshi teaches us detachment, the quality that enables us to stand back a little from what is happening to us, look at it, and observe it accurately.
In one of the dialogues in The Heart of Yoga, T.K.V. Desikachar is asked by a student: Is the ultimate goal of yoga to always be in samadhi? He replies: The ultimate goal of yoga is to always observe things accurately.*3
In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle says: Be present as the watcher of your mind of your thoughts and emotions . . . Dont judge or analyse what you observe. Watch the thought, the emotion, observe your reaction. You will then feel the still, observing presence itself behind the content of your mind, the silent watcher. 4
The observing presence, the silent watcher, is sakshi, the witnessing consciousness, through which, when it is awakened, we learn to observe things accurately.
A cancer diagnosis is terrifying. The emotions that arise can be so strong and so intense that one can be overpowered by them and feel incapable of coping with them. The impulse then naturally arises to push them back down, to repress them. Without the help of the practices in the yoga bag of tools it would be easy and natural to give in to that impulse, and to find subterfuges to avoid acknowledging and dealing with the emotions. This is termed denial, usually disapprovingly. No one deliberately denies reality unless reality is too painful to bear: sometimes denial is necessary to protect the psyche for a time from truths it is not ready to absorb. But burying emotions for too long traps our energy, and for full healing that energy needs to be released. This is why we need techniques that help us to confront our realities, and to assimilate and accept them.
Through practising yoga nidra we develop our powers of observation. We develop the clarity and the detachment that are needed to confront a diagnosis of cancer, the challenges of invasive treatments, and the uncertainties about the future, so that we can step back a little from the emotions it brings in its wake, allow them to arise, look at them clearly, and observe them accurately. When we do this, when we bring emotions up out of the darkness and shine the light of our awareness the light of sakshi on them, they lose their power over us. Then we can face them squarely, acknowledge them, accept them, and eventually let them go and when that happens, the energy that has been trapped in them is released.
When we are lying still in yoga nidra, following a voice that we trust, allowing ourselves to be guided through the practice, wherever it takes us, we are being given a special kind of strength. Not the brute, battling with cancer strength that we read about in every newspaper obituary, but the deeper strength of acknowledgement and acceptance, the inner strength that enables us to face the challenges we are given and learn their lessons, right through the entire process, and when the time comes, right through to death.
When I asked the people in my class at the Yoga Therapy Centre for their thoughts on how yoga nidra has affected them, one young woman, who had been having a difficult time with chemotherapy since she joined the class, said that yoga nidra always gives her a feeling of lightness, of peace, a feeling that a burden has been lifted, and the others all agreed with her.
Another says: Cancer, like any serious illness, can be seen as an invitation to heal ourselves on a deeper level. Yoga for me has been a very wonderful way to engage in this healing process. Starting in shavasana often feels like coming home into an alive stillness where nothing needs to happen . . . Ending with yoga nidra offers the forever surprising experience that simple presence with every part of the body creates such restfulness, a sense of being reborn in a different climate.
I will close with the experience of a woman who has been attending the class at the Yoga Therapy Centre since it began eight years ago. At that time she had just finished treatment for an extremely aggressive breast cancer. A few months after joining the class, she wrote: Not only have I developed my physical and mental strength through the wonderful yoga class of gentle exercises, relaxation and meditation, I have learnt an alternative and holistic way of dealing with the trauma emanating from having had breast cancer. The practice gives me control, hope and peace of mind, as well as a connectedness, within a very supportive and safe environment. No words can really express what a lifeline it has been.
Since then she has been through three recurrences and more intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Her cancer has now recurred again, in her liver, lungs, spine, bones and brain, and is considered terminal. All through these eventful, challenging years she has described yoga as her lifeline. She feels that it has helped her to hold her balance through all the vicissitudes of the past eight years, and to look clearly and unflinchingly at her situation. She has always identified her yoga practice as the grounding, stabilizing influence in her journey, and yoga nidra as the most profoundly healing element in her practice. Now, approaching the end of the journey, she feels that yoga, and yoga nidra are helping her towards a healing death.
She says: Yoga continues to be the core of my being able to deal with this last part of my journey, providing me with deep healing, strength, clarity and peace. My sankalpa has blossomed like a seed deeply planted and forms a guide for my life.
It is a great privilege to pass on the wonderful practice of yoga nidra, and all the other transformative tools of yoga, to people who are in such real and deep need of them. The reward for the teacher is that each of them, in his or her own way, wholeheartedly takes up the tools and uses them on the journey towards wholeness and healing.
*1. Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Yoga Nidra, 6th edition, Yoga Publications Trust, Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, Bihar, India, 1998
*2. Swami Rama, Freedom from the Bondage of Karma, Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy, Honesdale, Pennsylvania, 1977
*3. T.K.V. Desikachar, The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice, Inner Traditions International, 1995
*4. Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, Hodder and Stoughton, 2001